The Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission last month approved seven constitutional amendments for the voters to consider at the ballot box this November. It is important for readers to understand how our work will ultimately enable them to make decisions critical to Florida's future.
Every two decades, a 25-member commission reviews the Constitution to identify opportunities to improve the way state government raises revenue and spends taxpayer money. The governor appoints 11 members and the president of the Florida Senate and speaker of the Florida House each appoint seven members. A supermajority of members must approve each amendment before it is put on the ballot.
The process of developing the seven constitutional amendments began more than a year ago. Our members hosted open meetings and public forums around the state to encourage the participation of Floridians. We heard the same concerns over and over. Floridians want lower property taxes and insurance rates, more efficient government and less spending, better schools and greater protection of our state's sensitive natural resources.
Five of the proposed constitutional amendments deal with taxes. One measure would significantly lower property taxes by eliminating the Required Local Effort that helps fund schools. To replace that revenue, the Legislature could reduce other government spending or locate alternative funding sources, such as raising the state sales tax.
Two other measures would cut property taxes for property owners who harden their homes to withstand destructive hurricane damage or make their buildings more energy efficient. Still another amendment would give a tax break to property owners for land that is placed into conservation forever. One would create a local option sales tax for community colleges.
Two of the proposed constitutional amendments deal with the budget. The first removes an antiquated provision barring government from spending state funds with religious institutions, even for secular services. Court decisions in recent years threaten funding of hundreds of programs that provide a myriad of services to millions of Floridians through faith-based organizations. Among the programs are Bright Futures scholarships, free prekindergarten for all Florida 4-year-olds, public awareness to prevent AIDS and promote early detection of breast cancer, rehabilitative services in prisons — the list goes on. Without a change in the Constitution, the Legislature may be forced to end funding for these programs simply because they are provided by an organization affiliated with a religion.
The second measure improves the quality of education for all Florida students. Funding education in Florida takes up a tremendous portion of our annual budget and remains one of the state's top priorities. To ensure we are building world-class schools, the amendment requires at least 65 percent of all funding dedicated to education be spent in the classroom. This means higher salaries for teachers, fewer students in each classroom, more resources for higher quality instructional material and less waste in school bureaucracies. The amendment also enables the state to create more school choice options to better prepare students to meet the challenges of the new knowledge economy.
Thanks to the commission, Florida voters have an opportunity to voice their opinion on core principles that will guide policymakers in crafting the laws that impact our economy and quality of life.
Allan Bense is the former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and recently served as chairman of the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.